San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Jewish Community Museum Opens in San José

A new community museum opened this week, allowing residents and visitors to experience the traditions and ceremonies of one of the most colorful strands of the country’s diverse ethnic tapestry: Costa Rica’s Jewish community.The Jewish Museum of the Israeli Zionist Center of Costa Rica opened Oct. 17 in the western district of Pavas.Its purpose is to document and preserve the history and traditions of Costa Rica’s largely Orthodox Jewish community,and to celebrate its unique contribution to the country, according to museum director Vilma Faingezicht.“We’ve been working for 12-15 years to find all these documents and interview these people,” Faingezicht said.“The museum works to keep the history of this community that we’ve had since the 1930s,” Gustavo Priser, president of the Israeli Zionist Center, told The Tico Times.“But it is also a museum that teaches people about the traditions of the Jewish people.”THE history of the Orthodox Jewish community in the country began with the two major migrations of Orthodox Jews to Costa Rica, the first occurring at the beginning of the 1930s and the second coming directly after World War II.Although most Jews immigrated to the United States, a sizeable portion chose Costa Rica and Brazil as their final destinations, as documented in the museum.Most of the Orthodox Jews who immigrated to the country came from small villages in Poland in the 1930s and ’40s, choosing Costa Rica because they had friends and familyalready settled in the tropical nation and could receive visas without much trouble, according to Faingezicht, who has traced her personal heritage back to Poland.After a long journey through as many as 12 separate seaports and strange tropical surroundings, the members who would make up today’s Costa Rican Jewish community finally arrived in their new country, and were faced with the challenge of integrating into a new culture.“(Immigrating to Costa Rica) was a total change in life,” Faingezicht said. “They had to learn a new language and adapt to a new tropical climate.” THE museum’s exhibits include several displays showcasing the numerous ways in which the Jewish community has made its mark on Costa Rica.One of the more fascinating exhibits tells the story of the origin of the door-to-door merchant polacos.“When (the Jews) first arrived, the people of Costa Rica didn’t know what a Jew was, so they called them ‘polacos’ (Polish),” Faingezicht said, going on to explain that because many of the Polish Jews became door-to-door merchants, Ticos started referring to the salesmen as polacos; to this day, polaco is Tico slang for “door-to-door salesman.”ASIDE from informing visitors about the Jewish community’s integration into Costa Rican culture, the museum commemorates Jewish traditions and ceremonies, explaining several important holidays and rituals and illustrating them with sacred relics, many of which came from Poland.The museum is also home to a separate and moresomber commemorative section honoring the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust. The display includes a short documentary specially produced by the museum, featuringinterviews with Holocaust survivors living in Costa Rica.“We based this section on those people who were found dead in the concentration camps with pieces of paper in their pockets saying ‘do not forget me,’” said Priser, whose parents’ whole families were wiped outduring the Holocaust. “It is importantso that we don’t forget and so that theyare never forgotten… so that mygrandchildren can come here andunderstand what happened.”UPON exiting the Holocaust section, visitors are greeted with images and words describing how the Jews who immigrated to Costa Rica became an integral part of its society andhow they enjoyed the freedom from persecution they found here.Among a display of photographs of large Jewish weddings and historical Orthodox synagogues, the famous patriotic words from Costa Rica’s Sept. 15 Anthem, “Solo es hombre él que tiene derecho” (“One is only a man if one has rights”), reminds museum visitors of the Jews’ historic struggle for human rights.“I feel that in recognizing the past, we can understand the present and predict the future,” Priser said. “The museum has collected and maintains the stories and lives of the (Orthodox Jewish) people living here.”“We say that we were born here, and that is a very big part of who we are,” Faingezicht said. “We retain our customs but we are also a part of Costa Rica, and it is importantfor both Costa Rican and Jewish people to understand where we came from.”THE Jewish Museum is part of the larger facility of the Israeli Zionist Center of Costa Rica in Pavas, which includes the country’s only Orthodox synagogue. Completedin 2004, the synagogue replaced the center’s former Paseo Colón location, which had served as the country’s Orthodox Jewish community center since 1954.The museum is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Admission is free, but those interested must call ahead to schedule an appointment. Although all of the exhibit explanations are written in Spanish, some of the guides speak English, according to Faingezicht.For more information or to schedule an appointment fora visit and guided tour, call 520-1013, ext. 129.

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